The coming era will be characterized by a battle of principles: Trump, Putin on one side; the new U.N. head and humanist Guterres on the other side. The worse it gets, the more insight could grow.
The antipodes of the new world are at work not two kilometers (approximately a mile) apart: Since Sunday, António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, reigns at the United Nations Plaza in Manhattan, while over on Fifth Avenue, the future U.S. president, Donald Trump, resides. The two men, who are entering office at almost the same time, could hardly be more different. They stand for two principles: Trump for the sovereign egotism of nations and “America First”; Guterres for the building of a world order that integrates nation states and limits their omnipotence. The battle between these principles will characterize the year 2017 and the coming era.
If the Portuguese humanist, Christian and social democrat Guterres looks at the world from his office on the 38th floor of the U.N. high-rise, he might get anxious because this world is currently entering a new phase of history. The post-war order built over seven decades is crumbling. The fundamentals for which the United Nations stands are being attacked, swept away. Peaceful solution to conflicts? Syria is being bombed into a pile of rubble, Yemen demolished, the Sudan is a morgue and Afghanistan is sinking back into the violence of the Taliban. At the same time, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are rattling about with atomic bombs, China is heightening tensions in Southeast Asia, and hate is growing between religious groups. Us against them – instead of one world.
International law as a framework for order? Its articles are being twisted until they are no longer recognizable. Certain Western powers topple the Gadhafi regime without the mandate of the international community. Putin raids the Ukraine, takes the Crimea. Trump promotes torture as a method of interrogation. African countries leave the international court. Mass murderers like the Sudanese tyrant Omar al-Bashir receive official reception abroad. The Turkish government tramples on human and civil rights. European Union nations disregard the right of asylum and refugee law. Terrorist groups compete for who can commit the more atrocious crimes.
Solving world problems together? Trump doesn’t give a damn about global warming and wants to let the Paris Accord wither. He wants to tear up the nuclear deal with Iran. Putin single-handedly seeks a deathly peace in Syria. Many EU nations refuse support to refugees. Politicians of the CDU* that once built Europe one-up one another with suggestions for how one can limit freedoms, barricade doors, get rid of those in need of help. Christian Social? They say the inn is full.
Who Will Win Out?
The refugees and emergency migrants make it apparent precisely what shape the world order is in, because they are the victims of war, underdevelopment and environmental destruction. More than 65 million people are fleeing today; there have never been as many in the history of the United Nations. Emerging nations are accommodating 86 percent of these people, but the much richer EU nations feel overtaxed. Plans for how these burdens could be fairly distributed on a global scale are ready in the drawers of the U.N. but are not implemented. Many nations prefer to indulge in the illusion of being able to block out the problem. Guterres knows that only too well – he led the United Nations Relief Organization for Refugees for 10 years.
The expectations of the new U.N. secretary-general are great to halt the decline of the world order. Yet what can an individual do who hardly has any strong power – and no troops of his own? Portugal’s ex-prime minister is not an Atlas who can carry the globe alone. Yet he has his strengths. He is tenacious, eloquent, a brilliant mediator, pragmatic, but with principles. Above all, he has what his predecessor Ban Ki-moon lacked: charisma. A U.N. secretary-general needs that if he wants to be heard as the voice of the world.
This world runs the risk of being broken up into spheres of interest by the major powers of the U.S. and China and the pretend giant, Russia. War among the three is also not to be ruled out. Today they already mutually block one another frequently, and in so doing, they block the U.N. Security Council as the highest guarantor of peace. To resist this and preserve multilateralism – the spirit of cooperation – Guterres must seek allies: the global public, as many nations as possible, such as Germany, and also nongovernmental organizations. Only together can they bear up against the powers of destruction and perhaps save the climate agreement in the interest of all of humanity. And together they could even impress the U.S., Russia and China.
International law and the U.N. system embody possibilities of creating peace and stopping warmongers, even if the Security Council is hamstrung. The principle of Responsibility to Protect demands that the United Nations protect people from human rights violations.** If the Security Council disregards this obligation, the U.N. General Assembly, in which all nations are represented, can deal with the case. Whether they are permitted to impose sanctions or order military operations is still debatable. However, the longer the five veto powers in the Security Council fall short, the more the development of international law could go in this direction.
António Guterres’ strongest trump cards, however, will paradoxically become hostages of humanity itself: environmental destruction, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the collapse of nations, terror, misery of refugees – all these will now be even more intensified via nationalistic politics à la Putin or Trump. These problems can only be addressed together. The worse conditions become, the more this insight could grow. Only a fool still disavows global warming when he is up to his neck in water.
In the myths of humankind, a new order arises from chaos. That is a nightmarish hope – but nonetheless a hope.
*Editor’s note: The CDU is the Christian Democratic Union of Germany political party.
*Editor’s note: The Responsibility to Protect is a commitment endorsed by all member nations of the U.N. at the 2005 World Summit to protect people from genocide and other violations of human rights.